Chapter 8: Inquiry or Inquisition

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

The NASA team, including their lawyers, marched into the House of Representatives inquiry. The room was packed. It wasn’t just gawkers and protestors. There were senators and house representatives—uninvolved with the proceedings—standing against the walls to observe the discussion. There were also multiple news teams with video feeds, many from foreign agencies. This testimony would be broadcast across the globe.

All eyes were on Eric. It was clear everyone had heard of his survival, but it didn’t appear most were ready to believe it until they saw him. When they did, they stared, their mouths gaped. The team took their seats. He, Stanley, Robert and Isaac took the central table. He was curious when Sam and Sarah took positions on the ends. He wasn’t sure they’d testify until the later stages the next day. Then again, they might not allow him to speak until after everyone else testified. He needed to see how this played out.

The NASA Authorization Committee Chairman, Representative Jonathan Phillips, began the session.

“I was prepared to grill you over your losing control over the ISSDD project, but it appears you have some unexpected updates. So I think I’ll turn over the introductory comments to you, so you can brief us on what’s happened.”

The committee head was a Georgia congressman; bald with a short white beard and a pleasant, disarming smile. He’d put in his years playing ball, and was rewarded with his pet project, controlling NASA. Part of his interest was in arranging for many of their components to be built in his home state.

Isaac Hong, the Chinese-American Director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration leaned forward, taking the lead. “Thank you, Chairman Phillips. We appreciate the honor of addressing the committee on these issues.” Smiling, he turned and indicated Eric. “As you can see, we’ve managed to locate our missing astronaut, Eric Morgan.” There was a sprinkling of laughter, but everyone was too eager to hear the details to be so easily distracted. “He was, essentially lost in space, ten light years from the Earth. There was no way for him to return, and he only possessed a half-hour of oxygen.

“Yet here he is, sitting beside me, as hale and hearty as ever. He admits the mission ran into ... unexpected complications. The ship was destroyed, and he was sure he died. Yesterday morning, he woke up back in his home in Tennessee. Realizing he had some explaining to do, he flew to Cape Canaveral. We’ve since been trying to piece together what happend out there. Like you, we didn’t take this lightly. We subjected him to health and mental examinations, as well as an exhaustive debriefing. Before we get to those details, I think we should begin with the basics.” Isaac turned to the edge of the table. “Dr. Samuel Withers, can you detail what you uncovered.”

Eric raised his hand. “Pardon me, Chairman Phillips. If you’ll excuse me, these lights are ... giving me a bit of a headache. If we can turn off this center row, I should be able to bear the sound of these microphones.”

Isaac slapped his hand over his eyes and groaned. The assembled reporters sat up.

“Pardon me?” Representative Phillips said.

“Since coming back, I’ve been extremely sensitive to electronics. I can’t stay in the same room with a plasma TV, and I’m particularly effected by intermittent or flickering circuits.” He winced, waving an arm at the ceiling while shielding his face. “They give me crippling migraines.”

The committee chairman consulted with those around him a moment before continuing. “I’m afraid those are required for the video cameras. We can’t turn them off.”

“I can understand the concern,” Eric continued. “If you can at least shut off this one directly over me, the others should provide sufficient light while I’ll be better prepared to answer questions.”

Again, the chairman discussed it with his staff before coming to a decision. “This is highly irregular, but I see no reason not to afford you this singular request. They’ll take care of it in another moment. Now, if we can get back to Dr. Withers.”

“Please excuse the interruption,” Isaac said, continuing, “but as our staff physician will explain, there’s a valid justification for his concern.”

As all eyes turned to Sam, he collected his papers and began. “Concerning this ‘sensitivity issue’, we conducted some experiments. It isn’t merely a response to electric fields. He’s acquired the ability to differentiate between the voltages in different sources. Victims of lightning strikes sometimes report sensitivities. However, this is the first case I’ve heard of where someone becomes consciously aware of the electrical usage in devices around them. He can detect a short behind a wallboard, identify where it is and determine how much electricity is being lost.

“Aside from this curious anomaly, Eric Morgan presented a prime example of physical health. Only, it was too ideal, setting off a number of alarms.” He held up a small remote, switching on a display monitor on the side of the chamber, causing the topic of discussion to grimace. “Sorry, but it’s necessary to the proceedings.

“Eric has a BCG vaccine scar on his right arm, as seen in the left photo, due to his being stationed overseas while serving in the Air Force. However, the scar evaporated in the one on the right, taken yesterday. As you know, those are permanent, and short of plastic surgery, don’t just disappear. There were other irregularities. He suffered an accident in a test flight years ago and had surgical pins implanted to hold his femur in place. As the next slide reveals, they no longer exist. The bone is completely healed and the pins are gone. If I overlap the two pictures, it’s clear they’re the only differences.

“He’s also regrown his appendix, removed years ago. Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, his fillings are missing, three in all. They’re gone. In their place he now possesses flawless teeth. As I’m sure any of you with children realize, that’s impossible. Teeth don’t regenerate, and there is no known medical procedure to force them to.

“In short, although Eric returned in one piece, without any means of traveling ten light years having lost the ISSDD capsule, he is not the same person he was before.”

Rep. Nicholas Anderson leaned forward, resting on his elbows on the wooden table. A Republican Representative from Wyoming, he was an older, thin man with white hair but retaining his dark eyebrows. “Wait, you’re suggesting this isn’t the same Colonel Morgan who was launched into space on Saturday?”

“I’m not saying he’s someone else, but there are too many differences between who he was the day before, and the person he is now. It appears, between there and here, he’s been reformed without his previous scars or injuries.”

“What about other flaws?” Representative Lawrence Wilson asked. Like the others, he was dressed in a black suit and tie. He was older with wavy gray hair. He had a number of distinguishing marks on his face, and a deep penetrating gaze which commanded respect. “Does he still retain his old freckles, moles and fingerprints? From what I understand, even in twins who share the same DNA, fingerprints grow into unique identifiers which can’t be duplicated.”

“He has the identical dermatological markings, although one on his back seems to have disappeared. I suspect it turned malignant since his last exam. And no, his prints didn’t change. NASA doesn’t keep retina scans, but he owned a private laptop which used them for a secure login. We’re trying to examine it to do a comparison.

“Somehow, he was sent back to us in a new and improved condition. Whatever he encountered, there was someone or something responsible for sending him back. They had enough foresight and knowledge to rectify a lifetime of wear and tear.”

“Wrinkles, gray hairs, sagging skins, those remained the same?” Anderson asked.

“Yes, sir. You’re correct.”

“Damn! That’s certainly ... confounding. Do you mind if we take a second to examine him ourselves?” Chairman Phillips banged his gavel. “We’re taking a five minute recess, during which we’ll turn the cameras and sound off.”

After Eric stripped down to his shorts in an anteroom for the Representatives to gawk at, he dressed and returned to his table, waiting for the investigation to continue. Before they began, Robert leaned over.

“Every time you look at the Committee, you glance away. You seem to be having difficulty meeting their eyes. Is this a problem? It’s a sign of disrespect, and they aren’t likely to appreciate it.”

“I’m not sure what it is, but they make my skin crawl, especially Lawrence Wilson. There’s just something I don’t like about him.”

“Well, keep it under wraps,” Isaac hissed. “You can’t allow your political preferences to screw our chances of success.”

Robert tilted his head, considering their star. “Is it politics, personality conflicts, or something else? Is this like your response to electrical components?”

“It seems to be. I’ll walk by someone, and it’s like they punched me in the gut. It hurts to be near them.”

Robert jotted some notes in his notepad. “We’ll need to do some research to identify what’s triggering it. It might be something in their personal electrical fields. I can’t imagine what, but point out which people upset you. I’ll have Sam determine if there’s something you may be responding to.”

“Alright, this meeting of the NASA Authorization Committee is back in session. Dr. Withers, did you have anything further to add to your observations.”

“Yes, there were certain other items. His blood pressure and benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH, which were high before, are now at normal levels. Again, he returned in more pristine shape than when we sent him on his abortive journey.”

Chairman Phillips covered his mic and spoke to an intern, who ran off before he continued. “I’m having someone set up a little experiment of my own, but for now, who’s next on the agenda, Director Hong?”

“Dr. Sarah Cho, our Cape Canaveral psychiatrist, has some relevant information.”

While she testified, Eric studied those conducting the inquiry, the observers and the support personnel. A few, like the congressmen, rankled him, though he couldn’t identify why. Taking Sarah’s advice to heart, he closed his eyes and allowed his mind to go blank, then opened them and examined each figure. The results were astonishing, but he couldn’t do anything about it then. He needed to wait until the evening and discuss it with Sarah before broaching it with anyone else.

She continued testifying and the legislators asked her a series of pointed questions. Because they were saving his testimony for the end, she didn’t want to preempt his presentation. While she explained that they’d worked out several of Eric’s issues, she wouldn’t reveal what those revelations were. She assured them she’d appear after his deposition to answer additional questions, but didn’t want to dilute what he intended to say. It didn’t placate them, but they didn’t push it.

“So, putting it into laymen’s terms, Dr. Cho, what’s your objective opinion of Mr. Morgan? Is he trustworthy, a cheat? Does he believe these wild tales, or does he get a charge out of seeing what he can get away with?”

“I think I’d put him in the ‘extremely conscientious’ category. To survive in the service and NASA, he’s learned to temper his opinions, but if asked point blank, he’ll honestly tell you what he believes. He adheres to the Academy’s honor code. I don’t believe he’s lying. What’s more, his thoughts and explanations of what he witnessed are consistent and rational. He’s not misguided or delusional. Whatever your opinions of him are, I think you need to take his claims seriously.”

Once she’d wrapped up her presentation, Chairman Phillips spoke up. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Morgan, I’d like to conduct my own brief experiment. Can you approach the plasma TV my interns set up? I realize it’s uncomfortable, but I want you to approach it and keep walking so we can determine whether there are any effects.”

Eric stood, approaching the designated area. “I don’t see any problems with it. I’m eager to observe what may occur.”

He did as instructed, moving past it slowly.

“There, did you see that?” Phillip exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, but Eric’s body was blocking our view,” Isaac said. “What happened?”

“Try it again. Go ahead and gather around. You’ll notice the TV brightens when he passes. The area nearest him turns white, despite what’s playing on the screen.”

“Proving what, exactly?” Stanley asked.

Phillips sighed, not used to explaining his home-grown experiments. “He’s not only measuring the electronics, he’s interacting with them. When he walks past, or even waves his hand over it, there’s an exchange of electricity between the device and him.” He motioned Eric back. “Try holding your hand near the table light, but don’t touch it.”

When he did, the naked bulb brightened. When he removed it, it returned to its previous brightness.

Stanley scratched the back of his head. “Damn, why didn’t we notice this?”

“Probably because every time we passed a large display, he threatened to pass out,” Robert said.

The other council members stood, milling around the impromptu demonstration. It was also being broadcast across the globe, though the assembled participants made it difficult to observe.

“Okay, one more thing,” Phillips said. “Try draining its power and then back up about four feet and try it again.”

He did as instructed. “I had to consider how to do this first,” Eric explained. “It’s a difficult proposal, since it’s currently plugged in. If I drain the power, it would only draw more in. Instead I need to push the power out of it.” When he did, the light dimmed until it almost went out. The effort worked regardless of his distance. The committee chairman waved everyone back to their seats, as he and the other representatives retook their positions.

“Handled just like an engineer,” Robert mumbled, which generated laughs.

Phillips was excited by these demonstrations, but glanced at his watch. “It’s getting late. Let’s halt the proceedings for lunch while we consider this newest information. When we return, we’ll allow Colonel Morgan to speak about his experiences, and what he thinks they may mean.”

As they left, wrestling for space amongst the spectators, Isaac leaned in to Eric, whispering. “You’ve made a believer out of Phillips, but the rest don’t seem to be as convinced.”

“No, Lawrence Wilson has been staring daggers at me,” he said.

Stanley nudged him in the side. “Possibly because you can’t glance at him without wincing. You do the same with the others, but it’s not as obvious. If you don’t stop, it will cause trouble.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. Certain people affect me the way the plasma televisions or short circuits do.”

“Do you think they possess stronger electrical fields?” Sarah asked.

“No. It’s something more significant than stray electronics.” Eric examined the people surrounding them as they entered the House Cafeteria. The place was crowded, and many continued watching him. “I’ve learned another little trick which makes my ability to brighten reading lamps pale in comparison. I’d like to run some ideas by you once we sit down. I think you’ll be impressed.”

“Count me in. Dinner and a show while surrounded by lawyers we don’t have to listen to, what’s not to like?”

They ordered their food as Eric didn’t want others overhearing what he intended to say. When they sat, he spread his hands out on either side of his tray. “I’ve got some personal questions to ask each of you. I don’t mean to insult you, but it’s vital I have a control group to base my evaluations on. You can refuse to answer, but it’ll aid my subsequent decisions.”

“Go ahead, I’m intrigued,” Stanley said.

Isaac picked up his spoon and dug into his soup. “I may sit this one out. I’d rather not admit to anything which might be held against me later.”

“Okay, I need to know which of you has ever cheated on your spouse, especially whether it’s ongoing?”

They leaned back in surprise, while Sarah broke out in laughter.

“You don’t beat around the bush,” she said. “How vital is this?”

“Extremely,” he said. “Everything I do from here on out rests on the results.”

“I’ve cheated on my ex a few time, but only after we were already in trouble,” Dr. Cho admitted.

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